After reading my official Banned Books Week 2014 selections, I decided to continue the trend with Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Now, I have to be honest, I’m not one to read books when they are trendy. I tend to wait so I can meet them on my own terms, my impression not as colored by the hype. So when Nafisi’s love letter to literature and memoir of living, teaching, and being female in Tehran during and after the Iranian Revolution was published in 2004, sucking in hype regarding its status as an “important book”, I waited to read it. I waited and waited and waited. Finally, after tossing around the idea of reading it for several months, I finally picked up a copy from my delightfully jumbled used books shop and began my acquaintance with Dr. Nafisi and her students.
Nafisi tells her story of being a professor at the University of Tehran and the University of Allahmeh Tabatabai; her uncomfortable status as a respected female academic teaching Western literature; her evolving understanding of herself as Iranian, as an academic, and as a woman; and her secret literature class, taught in her home and filled with female students hand-selected from her classes at both universities, the best and the brightest whose paths and experiences diverge drastically from each other’s. The book is structured into four sections, each titled after an author or character: Lolita, Gatsby, James, Austen. In each section, Nafisi uses conversations with her girls, as she calls them, class lectures, and detailed literary analysis of these four characters and authors to structure her memories and musings on individuality, identity, public vs. private, zealotry, religion and government, and liberty.
I must say, I’m glad I waited. Nafisi’s words are just as important today within the context of contemporary America as they were 10 years ago within the context of revolutionary Iran. Her exploration of her value as a woman and citizen is something I myself have been thinking about quite a bit as our country deals with some of the same issues. The beauty of Nafisi’s work, though, is that she does not wildly blame anyone for the difficulties of her life. She looks at the situation in as balanced a way as possible. She does not simply rail against “men” or the revolution or Ayatollah Khomeini. She reveals her own faults, fears, and difficult elements as well. She is not afraid to show her mistakes in order to show the complexities and nuances of the issues at hand.
Aside from the more social and political moments of the book, Nafisi is an enchanting writer. I found myself doing something I haven’t done in a very long time: marking particular sentences and passages that particularly struck me. The way Nafisi writes about fiction is gorgeous; it really gets to the heart and soul of what fiction is and does in society. Additionally, her sense of humor is deliciously pointed yet subtle. Her discussion of the blind film censor in Iran at the outset of the revolution who censored films based on how they were described to him was both shocking and hilarious, a moment of gently sardonic humor in the midst of a mind-boggling process.
My main issue with the book was the first section, entitled Lolita. Nafisi begins her book with the birth of her secret class, but the way she writes of her class and their discussions made it hard for me to pin down who her students were. They are described in starts and bursts, a physical note here and a soundbite there. None in this highly intelligent, interesting, and culturally and religiously diverse group form a coherent identity until much later in the book. Even then I found myself going, “Wait, who is she again?”
The second section, Gatsby, begins with her tenure at the University of Tehran, and from here the story takes on a much more linear nature, allowing the characters (and I say characters out of respect for the privacy of the real women who are represented in Nafisi’s book) to become much more individually distinct as they are placed in a greater context outside of Nafisi’s apartment. Now usually I have no problem with non-linearity, but maybe it’s me. Or maybe this was a deliberate tactic on Nafisi’s part, as she frequently discusses how while her class brought her great joy, it also allowed her to remove herself more and more from her real world and greater context as a female Iranian academic. In either case, I engaged more with Nafisi’s story and words once we reached Gatsby. And, of course, the literature nerd in me thrilled at the intelligent discussions and in-depth debates over Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen. As my friend Emily said, reading Nafisi’s memoir is like being in a book club.
So often we in the West think of Iran and the Middle East as this one big thing with this one specific negative context. We look at them the way the revolutionaries looked at us: decadent, dangerous, other. Nafisi’s memoir, and others like them (Persepolis comes to mind), are vitally important in slashing through that scrim and revealing the nuances, complexities, and drastically diverse cultures that make up these counties of the Middle East. Iran is not one unified monolith of conservative Islam, despite what their government and our news media would have us believe. It is made up of living, breathing people whose opinions, experiences, and beliefs differ dramatically from one another. It is good to be reminded that there are individual citizens beyond perceptions of government all around this world, and Nafisi’s memoir certainly helps in that way. If you don’t care for the politics and social justice, though, read it for her love letters to fiction. Nafisi’s writing is creative literary thought at its finest, and it is such a pleasure to explore all of these pieces of literature with her.